In the end, there was no bang. No orgy of violence. No ‘blood eagle’, the grotesque execution which requires its victims to have their lungs pulled out, while alive, through their ribs. No, Vikings ended with just two men, two massive beards and a sunset, sat on a beach, having a chat about existentialism. It was one of the most perfect climaxes to an episodic TV drama ever.
After six seasons spent offing its central figures, Vikings‘ finale was better than it had any right to be. The show’s best character, Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) died in season four. His first wife, Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) took her fantastic braids to the great beyond at the beginning of the final season. Kwenthrith? Dead. Athelstan? Dead. Jarl Borg? Extremely dead (meeting his end via the aforementioned ‘blood eagle’ in season two). Season six part two resumed Vikings epic tale by immediately killing off Norse king Bjorn Ironside (Alexander Ludwig). That’s a lot of pressure on big bad Ivar The Boneless (Alex Høgh Andersen) to take us home.
And yet it’s Ivar’s arc that proved Vikings‘ greatness. A one note antagonist – albeit an extremely sinister note – the new season sees Ivar come to the aid of the slavic Rus people and their nerdy heir elect, Igor. It’s testimony to showrunner Michael Hirst’s writing that he somehow manages to eke a modicum of warmth out of a character whose rap sheet is longer than Ubbe’s journey to the Golden Land. Some achievement, like feeling empathy for a wasp. Ivar has, to date, killed his brother Sigurd, embedded an axe in the Seer’s head for disagreeing with his belief that he is a living God, left his wife Freydis’ baby son to be eaten alive by foxes, strangled Freydis to death for being sad about her baby son being eaten by foxes, and set at least two women on fire.
But the late 3D rendering of Vikings can’t solely be attributed to the emotional growth of Ragnar’s youngest son. The series’ biggest stars may have faded from the sky, but it’s here, within the final run of episodes, that the show’s principal themes become the story’s focus. Hirst’s playbook, perfected in his other historical drama The Tudors (2007-2010), has long been infused with glutenous sex and violence. But there are big questions being asked here: the circular horror of war, the conflict of faiths and danger of religious fervour, the birth of the patriarchy, the clash of cultures, the importance of preserving the natural world, the relative unimportance of the self within the enormity of creation. Sure, there is a scene in Vikings’ final run where a dude with massive earlobes is executed by being set on fire. But it’s the philosophy of the returning Floki (Gustaf Skarsgård) that will linger longest in fans’ memory.
2020’s fourth season of The Crown ignited a conversation about the morality of a historical drama that plays hard and loose with the truth. Truth is a complicated beast, especially when viewed within the context of fiction. Life, for all its drama, rarely comes scripted in a format ready for television. Even documentary is only ever ‘a’ truth, viewed from the perspective of the party with final sign-off in the cutting room. And yet there were factual liberties taken within The Crown that did make it difficult not to have some sympathy with the real-life players who steal a living from the masses, cocooned in their bubble of cruelty and tawdry spite. You should know that Phillip never fought an elephant. Even a CGI one. We Googled it.
There are historical inaccuracies within Vikings too. Tons of them. Season one’s attack on on a monastery at Lindisfarne in 793 sees Rollo (Clive Standen) taking on a prominent role. The real Rollo wasn’t born until at least 60 years later. Actual King Ecbert (Linus Roache) was dead for the majority of everything he’s credited with. Everything about the Vikings’ own religion is largely conjecture, since the details have largely been lost to the passage of time. “I especially had to take liberties with Vikings,” says showrunner Hirst. “No one knows for sure what happened in the Dark Ages.” Which may be true when it comes to detail, but Hirst does himself a disservice. Vikings’ aesthetic feels as real as it needs to be – and is historically accurate enough to give viewers a good idea of life in such a violent, seemingly desperate time.
And so, as we make a bed of Vikings DVDs, lay them on a longboat and ignite its wooden beams, we should be grateful for Hirst’s show and its thrilling ride. Vikings was a show as epic as the sagas, as inspiring to the investigation of historical truth as a hundred GCSE history classes, and – blimey – one of the greatest TV dramas ever to be streamed into our eyes. Wait, what’s that? We’re not done? There’s a spin-off sequel coming later this year? Called Vikings: Valhalla? Praise be to Thor!
The final season of ‘Vikings’ premieres on SBS Australia January 6